County Executive race could get complicated

Who will be King County Executive January 1, 2010?

That’s the question being asked from the courthouse to Olympia to Washington D.C., but the process that unfolds between now and then will get complicated. Over the next few months, many other questions need to be answered before we even get to the election.

Ron Sims, the incumbent Democratic Executive, is the lynch pin to the whole debate. Will Sims still run for re-election or will he leave for an appointment in the Obama administration and will the County Council then have to appoint a new Executive? If that happens the whole ball game changes immediately.

We know Democratic County Councilman Larry Phillips has been making all the moves to put himself in a position to run. We know the Republicans are looking for a pro-business candidate. And we know that despite the fact that it’s hard for a Republican to win county-wide, the position will be on the ballot as non-partisan, which potentially changes how some of the suburbs will vote.

We also know that Greg Nickels, the Mayor of Seattle, is up for election and is likely to face opposition. This will increase the turnout in Seattle, which is strongly Democratic. They do allow Republicans in Seattle but usually only if they’re passing through on their way to Everett.

Sims has an advantage as the incumbent and had a huge turnout at his fundraiser last year. Right now, his poll numbers don’t look very good as the county has had a number of political dustups over the last few years and its budget is a big problem, both substantively and politically.

Four years ago, Sims was in trouble against a marginal candidate, Republican County Councilman David Irons. But Sims is a great campaigner and once he framed the race about Irons and not himself, he won easily. So if Sims is still Executive and runs for re-election, he will be a tough opponent.

Now the tricky part. Sims backed Hillary Clinton for President, so many felt that he was set to run for re-election after she lost the primary to Barack Obama and Obama was elected President. But Sims has developed a lot of new environment programs that have caught the attention of some Obama senior staff, thanks in large part to Governor Christine Gregoire.

More importantly, Hillary Clinton has rebounded to be the Secretary of State nominee. Even more importantly, as part of accepting the job, she was able to get Obama to agree she could hire her own staff. Then we learned the FBI was looking into Sims’ background, which of course has increased speculation.

In recent comments, Sims downplayed the FBI inquiry as routine for a meeting he had with Obama’s staff on county programs. The FBI doesn’t typically do background checks for that type of meeting so this provided proof to some that Sims was a serious candidate for something. To others, his downplaying it signaled that some possible appointment had fallen through and Sims may have to run for re-election. So watch to see if he schedules a fundraiser or other campaign activities.

Phillips would prefer to run against Sims rather than an appointee or against a field of candidates, if Phillips were to get the appointment. If Phillips got the appointment he could find himself in the awkward position that Sims is in, that is, defending King County government.

If Sims does leave for something at the State Department or in the environmental area, who would be appointed as Executive?

A year ago, before the position became non-partisan, the King County Democratic party would have submitted three names to the Democratic controlled County Council in order of preference. In that scenario, the five Council Democrats would lock up behind one person, probably Phillips.

Now, the Council as non-partisan would get candidates from all over the place and the four Republican County Councilmembers’ votes start to count because you can reach across the aisle to get your five votes. In this scenario, you suddenly have Democratic Councilmembers Julia Patterson, Dow Constantine, and Bob Ferguson in the running.

If one of them puts together five votes to get the appointment, it could be the start of a whole new political career or a very short tenure as Executive. Phillips would still likely run against the winner if he didn’t get the appointment. A stalemate, followed by the appointment of a caretaker who wouldn’t run, seems very unlikely.

Back to the original question. Who will be County Executive January 1, 2010? Right now, there’s a bigger question: Who will be Executive in June?

Federal Way resident Bob Roegner, a former mayor of Auburn, can be reached at